Bar Codes: Alive And Well

June 26, 2006
Despite the RFID hype, bar codes still are widely used in manufacturing operations.

Yes, bar codes still exist.

With all the hype surrounding RFID these days, few people are talking about advancements in bar code technology. But uses for bar codes and their capabilities are increasing, and most manufacturers prefer them over RFID because of their lower cost.

"RFID within the supply chain is primarily driven by compliance requirements of retailers, and manufacturers are still struggling to find ROI with RFID tags when the bar code has provided good payback for them," says Steve Banker, director of supply-chain management for Dedham, Mass.-based ARC Advisory Group.

Indeed, bar codes are alive and well. Even Dallas-based semiconductor maker Texas Instruments Inc., which has been working closely with Vernon Hills, Ill.-based Zebra Technologies Corp. and other manufacturers of automated identification equipment to develop RFID standards and solutions, still uses bar codes to drive all of its supply-chain processes, says Tom Shields, worldwide service and RFID manager for Texas Instruments. "We don't want any cost increases; we recognize that we will see increased cost of goods with RFID, and we don't have that luxury, as some retailers, of accepting cost increases," Shields explains.

Although bar codes were first developed more than 50 years ago, bar code technology and its uses are continually evolving. One increasingly popular use for bar codes -- particularly in the automotive and aircraft industries -- is direct part marking (DPM). This involves etching a 2-D symbol onto a part so it can be uniquely identified throughout the manufacturing process.

DPM is a promising trend for manufacturers, but developers of DPM technology are still working out some kinks in the process. AIM Global, a trade association for automatic identification technology based in Warrendale, Pa., is developing guidelines for image quality of the direct-part marks to ensure the marks are always readable, says Dan Mullen, president of AIM Global. The readability of bar code scanners also is improving. Banker noted that Holstville, N.Y.-based Symbol Technologies Inc. makes standard bar code readers with DPM scanning capabilities, whereas before special scanners were needed to read the 2-D symbols.

Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman Corp. bar codes parts trays at its 2.76-million-square-foot El Segundo, Calif., facility where the company makes the center/aft fuselage section and twin vertical tails for the Navy's F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet as a way to mistake proof -- or poka yoke -- the production process, says material warehousing manager Chris Mahoney. The plant assigns a bar code to tote trays issued to the assembly line and matches that number to the bins where the parts were originally removed. The technician then reads and records both bar codes using AirClic scanners. Mahoney estimates the plant saved 10% in costs in 2005 by implementing the poka yoke system.

Bar codes also are used for mistake proofing during the manufacturing process for biopharmaceutical company Genzyme Corp. The $2.7 billion Cambridge, Mass., company uses bar codes in various processes, including DPM of vials to ensure the right label is placed on the right vial, says Rick Azaroff, packaging engineer for Genzyme. In another process, the company uses Avery Dennison printers with an integrated verification system that ensures each bar code label meets specifications. "Should we have a failure or incorrect information, that printing line will stop and go into alarm as soon as it detects a bad label or bar code," Azaroff says.

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